Barbara Babcock


On her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

Cover Interview of January 25, 2011

The wide angle

Clara Foltz was a leader of two great movements: for women’s rights and for public defense.  The book conceptualizes these two as connected in her person as well as in a larger sense.

Whatever else she was doing, Foltz was also working for the freedom of women to be educated, to follow a profession, to vote, to serve on juries, and to seek election to public office.  She called herself a “woman’s rights woman” and though she did not use the term feminism, concern for women was at the center of all her activities.

The long struggle for women’s rights—with its internal divisions and seemingly endless marches, petitions, lobbying, rallying—can be tiresome and repetitive as a stand-alone story.  But through Clara Foltz’s energetic and visionary activities, the tale gains interest.  And it ends in victory when women won suffrage in California in 1911.

Foltz’s other major cause was public defense.  She came to the idea from representing poor people charged with crime.

Initially, poor people were the only ones to brave the choice of a woman lawyer.  Going to court for these clients, Foltz was amazed to see the conditions created when there was a paid prosecutor but no regular defense bar.  She formulated constitutional and practical arguments to support her radical idea that the government should be equally interested in the fair presentation of both sides of a criminal case.  She waged an active campaign in Los Angeles to enact it—and with the support of the newly enfranchised women, the first public defender was established there in 1913.

Like Clara Foltz, my own two causes have been women’s rights and public defense.  These connections sustained me in re-creating her life as they enabled her in living it.

I joined the second wave of the women’s movement in the late sixties.  At the time I was the public defender in Washington D.C.—the first woman to hold that office.  The new women’s movement brought an overnight increase in the numbers of female law students, and the elite law schools moved to add women to their faculties.  I came to Stanford in 1972, as the first woman on the regular faculty of the law school, and began teaching sex discrimination courses in addition to more conventional subjects such as civil and criminal procedure.  And for the last decade or so I have taught a seminar in women’s legal history.